Hope is as hollow as fear

A poem about hope starts with the lines, "Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as hollow as fear."

Steve Jobs had no shortage of techniques that made him the leader that started Apple, and reversed its misfortunes in its later years. Still, one has always stood out to me: through a combination of willpower, hope, charm, perseverance, and pressure—and probably some phrases that could fit into a poem about hope (“Real artists ship” being the most famous)—Jobs got people to do what they thought would be impossible. 

This might be as simple as creating software in really tight timelines, or flawlessly presenting an unready prototype. His teammates called this his reality distortion field. It works because, as Molly Wortham writes in The Man on Whom Nothing was Lost, “Self-perception is at the heart of life, not objective fact.” Jobs was a master at getting people to change their self-perception of what was possible.

Our collective reverence for Jobs has made many leaders emulate him. Jack Dorsey was compared to Steve Jobs when he returned to Twitter as CEO, Elizabeth Holmes tried implementing the things Steve Jobs would do as well—down to the wearing the same turtleneck

But, most of us are not Jobs. No matter how we try to wield things like the reality distortion field, it just doesn’t work. I’ve seen all too often the costs of reality distortion done poorly in the workplace: missed deadlines, overoptimistic plans, and its effects on corporate culture. 

Hope is a key virtue in this type of reality distortion, which we call positive thinking. But sometimes, I wonder if hope is indeed as helpful as we give it credit for. Of course, we need to believe something is possible for us to even try. But, hope can also be seen as a short-term play that often plants the seed of despair. When things inevitably go wrong, despair is the natural counterbalance to hope.

A couple of weeks ago, I read this poem in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Stephen Mitchell translation):

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

One of the core themes in the Tao Te Ching is getting out of your own way. I love the image of the ladder, which seems to be how we’re wired to think about life. We constantly compare ourselves to other people we perceive to be higher or lower than us in some way. Conventional hope poems or literature convey the idea we’re constantly moving up, or will be in a better place in the future. 

But, as Lao Tzu writes in this hope poem, this mental exercise of going up and down a ladder puts our minds on shaky ground. By contrast, it’s best to keep the footing of our minds on the ground. You may know Kanye West for his ego, but he’s said in more recent times, “I don’t wish to be number one anymore, I wish to be water.” 

Even though we’re sometimes unable to get around or through it, we know how damaging fear can be—but Lao Tzu points out that hope isn’t too different. Both involve things we wish for ourselves in some way. We wish to avoid things we fear. We wish to attract things we hope for. But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can stop restricting our vision to ourselves, and instead widen our perspectives. 

This applies at an individual level of hope. There is, for example, the way that Bob Iger defines optimism in The Ride of a Lifetime doesn’t involve hope, reality distortion, or positive thinking. It’s more about trusting yourself, your team, and improvising to match the changes of reality. 

This optimism calls for an ability to focus on what matters, and to let go of what doesn’t. Faith, trust, and love, are all thematically tied together. Perhaps instead of rejecting the status quo, it’s by accepting the world and reality on its terms, that we can take the first step to changing it the way we want.

This state of no hope is, of course, different from a sense of hopelessness—which is rooted in despair and fear. No hope means letting go of hope, moving in spite of hope or a lack of it, the same way we’re taught to let go of and work through fear.

If you find yourself constantly suffering from despair—for example, your art isn’t turning out as you’d hoped—try letting go of hope instead. Instead of trying harder, try less hard. Get off the ladder, comparing yourself to anyone else or anything else. Stand on two feet, look at what’s in front of you, and put the first stroke on the canvas, the first word on the page, the first note in the recording, or the first subject in your camera.

I recommended the Tao Te Ching in my latest Best of Books newsletter. If you liked this piece, you’ll love the newsletter, in which I share three great books every month.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *